Link Between Excessive Drinking And Heart Health Explored By Researchers

By Britni de la Cretaz 01/11/17

Does excessive drinking contribute to heart failure?

A wine glass spilling into the shape of a heart.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death worldwide. Now, a new study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests that there might be a link between heart problems and alcohol abuse.

Dr. Gregory M. Marcus, director of clinical research in the Division of Cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco and senior author of the study, told CNN that "one of the most surprising findings ... is that people who abused alcohol are at increased risk for heart attack or myocardial infarction.” And while this is at odds with the oft-cited theory that a glass of red wine a night is good for your heart, it supports other recent studies that have found that alcohol intake can be damaging to heart health.

A 2015 study found that excessive drinking can increase someone’s risk of heart failure by 70%, and that those effects are most pronounced in young and middle-aged adults and people with no known cardiovascular issues. Meanwhile, a 2016 study found that even moderate alcohol consumption can increase the risk of heart attack within an hour of drinking.

The theory that wine—and by extension, alcohol—can be good for cardiovascular health comes from a 2007 study in the journal Circulation that found that moderate drinkers may have a lower risk for heart failure. However, as is often the case, the research has been misinterpreted over the years to imply that alcohol itself is protective of heart health, which is far from the actual truth.

For their study, Marcus and his colleagues looked at 14,727,591 patient records; 1.8% of these patients had been diagnosed with alcohol abuse. According to Marcus, alcohol abuse was defined by seeing which individuals were flagged by their doctors as having a problem with excessive alcohol use, either "acutely" or "chronically."

What the researchers found was that alcohol abuse was associated with double the risk of atrial fibrillation, a 1.4-fold higher risk of heart attack and a 2.3-fold higher risk of congestive heart failure.

The study further concluded that people without traditional cardiovascular risk factors are “disproportionately prone to these cardiac diseases in the setting of alcohol abuse.” Thus, the researchers suggest, “efforts to mitigate alcohol abuse might result in meaningful reductions of cardiovascular disease.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.